In this excerpt from his book, Generation Friends, Saul Austerlitz meets the past of successful TV writing and discovers that it’s the present and future as well.
by Saul Austerlitz
Every writer knew the sinking feeling in the pit of their stomach. David Crane would enter the room, toting a script full of notes scribbled in the margins. He would sit down in his chair and begin drumming his fingers on the table before announcing, “All right, we’ve got a lot of really good stuff here.” The assembled writers would silently groan, knowing that this was Crane-ian code for a full script rewrite. Everything was out, and it was time to start again.
“Good enough” was not a concept Crane, or Marta Kauffman, understood or accepted. One day during the first season, writer Jeff Astrof approached Crane with a proposal. “Look,” he told Crane, “right now we work one hundred percent of the allotted time and we have a show that’s one hundred. I believe that if we worked fifty percent of the time we’d have a show that’s seventy-five, so maybe we work seventy-five percent of the time and have a show that’s like a ninety.” Crane instantly rejected the proposal: “Absolutely not. The show has to be one hundred.” There might have been a faster way to get the work done. But this was Marta Kauffman and David Crane’s show, and their room.
After hiring their staff for the first season, Crane and Kauffman gathered the writers to deliver a pep talk, and a challenge. “Comedy is king,” Crane told the assembled writers. “This is a show where we want everything to be as funny as it can be.” For writers in their mid-twenties, many of whom were on their first or second jobs in the industry, this was a thrilling proclamation. Writers like the team of Astrof and Mike Sikowitz had always felt deeply competitive about crafting the best possible joke and getting it into the script — Astrof’s concerns about the punishing schedule notwithstanding — and Crane was seemingly opening the doors wide to all competitors….